Panel of judges upholds Oregon congressional maps, dismisses gerrymandering claims

U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Oregon Capitol Chronicle/Getty Images)

Oregon is closer to moving ahead with its new Congressional district and new boundaries for five others after a panel of judges ruled Wednesday that work to draw the new boundaries didn’t illegally favor Democrats.

Most independent analyses have Democrats winning at least four, and likely five, of the state’s six congressional districts. Registered Democrats make up about one-third of the state’s voters – the largest party bloc in Oregon. Democrats have held four out of five seats in the U.S. House and both U.S. Senate seats.

Four Republicans led by former Secretary of State Bev Clarno sued to block the Congressional redistricting plan, arguing that a potential 5-1 Democratic split didn’t reflect the reality of the state. 

But in their unanimous 14-page opinion, five retired circuit court judges appointed to consider the case determined that the new map was better for Republican candidates than any in the past 30 years. 

“The evidence included expert testimony which compared 50 years of Oregon’s history with congressional districting,” they wrote. “That evidence demonstrated that the enacted map was well within the range of plans that legislatures and courts have adopted in Oregon for the past 50 years and that the enacted map is more favorable to Republicans than any map since 1990.”

The judges on the special panel, like the Oregon Supreme Court in a separate suit over alleged legislative gerrymandering decided Monday, wrote that plaintiffs didn’t prove that the Legislature drew its lines to benefit one political party.

Plaintiffs in both cases were unable to force testimony from the Democratic legislators who drew the maps, who are protected by legislative privilege from being questioned in court. Judges threw out testimony from Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, in the congressional case and Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, in the legislative case when the two volunteered information about redistricting conversations. 

The judges said the evidence established that the Legislature had logical and nonpartisan reasons to draw district lines as it did.

“Evidence that the Legislative Assembly drew district lines to keep specific communities of interest together rebuts claims that the Legislative Assembly had a partisan purpose,” the judges wrote.

Legislative records indicate that the committees changed their draft maps based on feedback from Oregonians, including shifting lines to keep Portland’s historic black neighborhoods in the same district and avoiding splitting tribal reservations into multiple districts.

Judges rejected arguments that splitting the Portland area among four districts and drawing the 5th Congressional District to stretch across the Cascades from Portland to Bend were evidence of gerrymandering. 

“The Legislative Assembly had sound reasons for the various line-drawing choices they made,” the judges wrote. 

Former House Speaker Larry Campbell, former House GOP leader Gary Wilhelms and James Wilcox, former mayor of The Dalles, joined Clarno in the suit.

The plaintiffs can appeal this decision to the Oregon Supreme Court, which used similar reasoning to dismiss allegations of legislative gerrymandering. Otherwise, the new districts will take effect Jan. 1. The appeal would have to be filed by Monday, Nov. 29.

Legislative Democrats welcomed the ruling. Senate President Peter Courtney said in a statement that he was glad the map was taken to the courts because it confirmed the Legislature did good work.

“A panel of judges found the work we’ve done has followed the law,” he said. “I think the Legislature can say we did very well.”

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan said the redistricting map, and the court’s decision, prove that Oregon needs an independent commission to draw new boundaries.

“This gerrymandered congressional redistricting map is an incumbent protection plan that Democrats desperately fought to keep,” Drazan, R-Canby, said in a statement. “Rather than serve the interests of Oregonians, they have served themselves.”

Efforts are underway to put a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission on the 2022 ballot. Bonham tweeted Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation next year to create an independent commission as well.

Candidates have already begun campaigning in the newly-mapped districts. Democratic U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, as well as Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz, are all seeking re-election in their redrawn districts.

Schrader faces a primary challenge from the left in Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an elected member of the Jefferson County Education Service District Board who was her party’s nominee in the 2nd Congressional District in 2018 and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for secretary of state in 2020. 

In the new 6th Congressional District, which includes Salem, all of Polk and Yamhill counties and portions of Washington and Clackamas counties, state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, and former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith are seeking the Democratic nomination. State Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, is also running.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.